Hinduism and Ecology – A Sustainable Relationship

In setting out to write an article on the subject of ‘Hinduism and Ecology’ I felt a necessity to come up with at least some functional definitions of the two terms. Ecology was the easiest to define. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica it is explained as “the relationship between organisms and their environment.” When we place this into the context of sustainability, the ‘organisms’ could refer to us – the human beings of the Earth. Of course, it is a clear observation that human beings carry the enormous responsibility of making decisions that directly have ramifications upon the ecologies of all the other species of life on this planet. Having such a position of accountability to uphold is, to many humans, an expression of a relationship with the Creator of our collective ecology. As the historian Lynn White observed,

“What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.” (1)

Of the estimated 86% of the world population who identify with a particular religion, 15% (or approximately 900 million people) claim adherence to the Hindu faith.(2) This comprises a significant proportion of the human inhabitants of Earth – certainly sufficient grounds to warrant a careful exploration into the sustainable traditions and philosophy held as sacred to so many.

Trying to find a concise definition for the word ‘Hinduism’ was a much more arduous task. It seems that nearly every scholar has a somewhat different opinion regarding its history. Some claim that the primitive aspects of the Hindu theology arose out of cultural necessity from early cultivators in the Indus Valley region in the third millennium BCE. (3) Many others insist that the official emergence of Hinduism began with the death of Buddha in 486 BCE. Although many place the commencement of the Hindu faith as having appeared several thousands of years before Christ, the academic effort to date this tradition can often invoke remarks such as “everywhere we are on unsafe ground”. (4) If we compare such empirical conclusions to the historical version given by the Vedic texts themselves we find yet another irreconcilable contradiction. Why do western scholars reject the explanation of the Vedic literature’s origin, purpose and transcendental nature as given by the selfsame texts and by the scholars within the Vedic tradition? The brevity of this paper could not possibly encompass a sufficient explanation of this subject but fortunately there are many scholars currently attempting to answer this enigma. (5)

Even more bewildering than trying to ascertain the historical origin of the Hindu tradition was the perplexing mission of attempting to understand what comprises the Hindu philosophy. It came as some relief to find out that there are many accomplished scholars of indology who share the same puzzlement. One noteworthy remark offered by Ainslee T. Embree reveals that the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are not even found in the Vedic literature:

“The physical setting is the land known to the Western world since ancient times as India, a word borrowed by the Greeks from the Persians, who, because of the difficulty they had with the initial “s”, called the great Sindhu River (the modern Indus) the “Hindu”. It was this word that came to be applied by foreigners to the religion and culture of the people who lived in the land watered by the two rivers, the Indus and the Ganges, although the people themselves did not use the term.” (6)

To delve more specifically into the different schools of thought would comprise an encyclopedia of philosophical variety. Suffice to say that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different teachings, with nearly as many revered teachers, which form the conglomerate misnomer ‘Hinduism’. In this paper I will address aspects of the ideology inherent to the majority of divisions and principles which are in congruence with the Vedic texts themselves.

It is interesting to point out that most empirical attempts to define ‘Hinduism’ generally fall short of what is generally accepted as authoritative and accurate enough information to be considered as conclusive historical fact. Yet, for seemingly a lack of any other valid explanation, the blurred assertions made by modern historians are what we in the western world are, for the most part, left with. Has it ever dawned upon us that our minute reasoning faculties could possibly be dwarfed by a subject matter which may lie far beyond our immediate powers of analytical comprehension? One pertinent Vedic analogy is of a bee who tries to taste honey by licking the jar. After some time he concludes that the taste he perceives by his repeated misdirected attempts to enjoy the honey must be the actual taste of the nectar inside. The foolish bumblebee then sits atop the jar falsely satisfied with his self-deception. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, a highly revered acarya (or teacher) in the Vedic tradition, has also explained that “spiritual substance is never understood within the jurisdiction of the material conception. This is always the verdict of the Vedas and Puranas.” (7)

Hasn’t the empirical worldview, of which we in the western world are too afraid to let go, caused us enough trouble already? As stated by the famous sociologist Alexander Solzhenistsyn in his 1978 Harvard speech:

“Man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth – imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East [the former U.S.S.R.], it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis.” (8)

It is hard to conceive that the Renaissance era harbingers of inductive authority could have possibly foreseen the pernicious spiritual consequences that are gradually eroding the cultural fabric of nearly every society of the world today. In our educational institutions the spiritual dimension has nearly been eliminated from the curriculum whereas in bygone times this was considered essential for developing a well-rounded student of erudition. As a self-serving capitalist ethos displaces the moral responsibility previously instilled in newer generations, our world is faced with the most alarming crisis to date. As Daniel Maguire has succinctly observed, “If current trends continue, we will not.” (9) Martin Luther King Jr. also comments “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

The most embarrassing part of our dilemma is that our spiritually misguided society looks for a solution from the very same empirical authorities that got us into this quandary in the first place. Ironically, one of the greatest modern icons of objective reasoning was Albert Einstein who warned that no problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness which created the problem. As thought provoking as this concept may be to our inductively conditioned minds, it is a basic underlying premise to the perception of the spiritually realized Vedic sages. If we truly wish to ‘re-orient’ our society perhaps we could benefit from looking towards the proven sustainable teachings of the ancient far east.

An explanation as to why there is very little extraneous historical writing in the Vedic tradition is largely due to the Aryans’ acceptance of the historical accounts given by the Vedas themselves. These sacred texts also contain knowledge of the cosmology, ecology, and sociology of the human species. Beyond these aspects of the Vedas there is given deep understanding of the transcendental nature of the Absolute as well as distinct information of the non-physical self. As quite a contrast to the modern approach, a Vedic seer would regard the beginning of true human enlightenment as understanding the difference between matter and spirit in relation to the Controller of both. Indeed, an adherent to Vedic understanding would recognize that without such foundational acceptance offered by philosophical treatises such as Bhagavad-Gita any further reasoning would be clouded by misconception and misidentification of the self. (10)

By contemplating the metaphysical aspects of our situation we can quite naturally arrive at the question of whether or not we have a sustainable conception of ourselves. Do we have a sustainable conception of the world we live in? Can we give a purposeful explanation of our own existence? Bhagavad-Gita explains that our physical body, being composed of matter, is by its very nature temporary and unsustainable. Although a wonderfully designed machine, the gross material body exhibits no animate conscious activity in and of itself. The soul, however, is considered to be composed of superior spiritual constitution and is thus identified as the real eternal self.

“Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both.” (11)

Matter is inherently unsustainable. It does not contain life. Life (the soul) temporarily animates matter yet only for some time until the matter decays and changes composition. This primordial truth has widespread individual, familial and socially beneficial ramifications when deeply understood; on the contrary, individuals who fail to see the significance of such a reality contribute to a misfortunate ecological condition. Such conclusions are not only presented in the Vedic teachings; they are echoed by current researchers such as Peter Russell:

“Nothing in current science can account for consciousness, yet consciousness is the one thing we cannot deny. The exploration of this final frontier has now become imperative. It is clear that most of the problems we face today — global, social, and personal — stem from human thinking, perception, and values. The crisis is, at its roots, a crisis of consciousness. Now, more than ever, we need to understand our own minds, and how to liberate ourselves from the limiting egocentric modes of thinking so that we can achieve our true inner potential.”

From this essential premise we can, as individuals, investigate more socially and environmentally influential aspects of the Vedic teachings. At present approximately six percent of the world population controls fifty-nine percent of the world’s wealth. Directly converse to such an imbalance in values is the Vedic principle known as ‘isavasyam’ as enunciated in the Sri Isopanisad as thus:

“Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.” (12)

To some materialistic (identified with matter) thinkers such a direct scriptural reference to God as proprietor may pose some restrictive implications. It stands to reason, however, that without the self control inspired by such a philosophical outlook we can expect an insatiable increase in the exploitative mentality that some feel threatens our very existence. On the other hand, by understanding our real joyful spiritual nature we can have access to unlimited satisfaction that does not depend upon the victimization of any other living entity. Another Vedic aphorism is jivo jivasya jivanam which means that in the material conception one living entity becomes food for another. In this philosophical paradigm, a sustainable situation for one entity automatically mandates an unsustainable situation for another aspect of creation. By attempting to apply higher principles such as those enunciated in the Vedas we can collectively and individually gain our sustenance in a way which is conducive towards self realization. This is purported by the Vedic tradition to be the actual ultimate goal of the human form of life.


(1) Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”, Science 155 (March 1967):1204.

(2) http://www.adherents.com/
These are global statistics on the adherents to the major world religions as of 6 September 2002:

(3) David L. Gosling, Religion and Ecology in India and Southeast Asia, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 16-33.

(4) Sten Konow and Paul Tuxan, The Indus Civilization, (Delhi: Chavarria-Aguilar, 1970) p.28

(5) Some very interesting reading material on the subject of the origin of the Vedic culture:

– Devamrita Swami, Searching for Vedic India, (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2002)

– Satsvarupa das Goswami, Readings in Vedic Literature, (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1977)

(6) W. H. Moreland et. al.., A Shorter History of India, passim.

(7) His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, Sri Caitanya Caritamrita, (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1975)

(8) Solzhenistsyn, Alexander. A World Split Apart. (Harvard Graduation Address: June 8, 1978)
He continues:
“But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”

(9) Daniel Maguire, The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution (Phil.: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 13

(10) His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, Bhagavad-Gita As It Is (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972)

(11) This is taken from the above transliteration of Bhagavad-gita. The purport by the author continues to give explanation:

“There is no endurance of the changing body. That the body is changing every moment by the actions and reactions of the different cells is admitted by modern medical science; and thus growth and old age are taking place in the body. But the spirit soul exists permanently, remaining the same despite all changes of the body and the mind. That is the difference between matter and spirit. By nature, the body is ever changing, and the soul is eternal. This conclusion is established by all classes of seers of the truth, both impersonalist and personalist. In the Visnu Purana (2.12.38) it is stated that Visnu and His abodes all have self-illuminated spiritual existence (jyotimsi visnur bhuvanani visnuh). The words existent and nonexistent refer only to spirit and matter. That is the version of all seers of truth.

This is the beginning of the instruction by the Lord to the living entities who are bewildered by the influence of ignorance. Removal of ignorance involves the reestablishment of the eternal relationship between the worshiper and the worshipable and the consequent understanding of the difference between the part-and-parcel living entities and the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One can understand the nature of the Supreme by thorough study of oneself, the difference between oneself and the Supreme being understood as the relationship between the part and the whole. In the Vedanta-sutras, as well as in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Supreme has been accepted as the origin of all emanations. Such emanations are experienced by superior and inferior natural sequences. The living entities belong to the superior nature, as it will be revealed in the Seventh Chapter. Although there is no difference between the energy and the energetic, the energetic is accepted as the Supreme, and energy or nature is accepted as the subordinate. The living entities, therefore, are always subordinate to the Supreme Lord, as in the case of the master and the servant, or the teacher and the taught. Such clear knowledge is impossible to understand under the spell of ignorance, and to drive away such ignorance the Lord teaches the Bhagavad-gita for the enlightenment of all living entities for all time. “

(12) His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, Sri Isopanisad, (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972)






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